With Benzema out, France coach Deschamps considers options
CLAIREFONTAINE, France (AP) France’s upcoming matches against Germany and England have extra significance in the absence of first-choice striker Karim Benzema.
The friendlies offer coach Didier Deschamps a glimpse of how competitive his side is going to be without Benzema, who was out injured but also charged last week with conspiracy to blackmail.
The Real Madrid forward was charged as part of an investigation over a sex tape involving fellow France player Mathieu Valbuena, with investigators trying to find out if Benzema played a role in an extortion attempt targeting his teammate.
Valbuena was left out by Deschamps for these two games, and Deschamps may eventually have to choose between them for his Euro 2016 squad.
He therefore urgently needs to look at other options – starting at home against Germany on Friday.
At France’s training camp on Tuesday, winger Hatem Ben Arfa said: ”It’s not a strain on us; we haven’t been talking about it.”
But it threatens to become a real headache for Deschamps and one that could potentially overshadow France’s preparations to host the tournament.
France, too, appears weaker without Benzema and Valbuena.
The consistent Valbuena is a big part of the attack as a quick, skillful passer with a fine footballing brain.
Benzema’s repertoire is complete, as a roaming mobile forward whose excellent touch enables him to drop deep and link with the midfield, an astute passer who can shield the ball with his back to goal, and a clinical finisher when the mood takes him.
His 27 international goals are especially valuable in a squad not noted for high scoring, with Arsenal center-forward Olivier Giroud next best with 12.
Both would normally expect to be starters at Euro 2016, yet one or both may not play – depending on what happens with the legal case.
Given the context, Giroud has a good opportunity to stake his claim for the No. 9 jersey if he performs well against Germany at home on Friday, and away to England at Wembley next week.
But despite his touch and aerial prowess, Giroud remains a wasteful finisher – demonstrated last Sunday when he squandered three good chances against Tottenham.
Deschamps could therefore consider Antoine Griezmann, a technically skilled forward who has been in good form since joining Atletico Madrid last season, with 27 goals in 48 games.
But Griezmann remains too lightweight for the cut and thrust of the center-forward’s role and is better suited cutting in from the wing.
That leaves three options: Alexandre Lacazette, the French league’s top-scorer last season with 27; 19-year-old Anthony Martial, who has made a big impression since joining Manchester United, and Andre-Pierre Gignac.
The odds do not look good for Lacazette, overlooked by Deschamps for the 2014 World Cup and left out again this time, although he responded with a hat trick against Saint-Etienne on Sunday.
Martial has the strength and athleticism to play through the middle – as well as searing pace – but chronically lacks experience and it is risky for Deschamps to pick him as his No. 9 for Euro 2016.
Gignac’s stop-start international career has never really taken off. Since making his debut in 2009, he has played 21 times, scoring five goals.
But he has been galvanized by a summer switch to Mexican side Tigres, scoring 11 goals in 14 games.
”When I went to Mexico I said it was a 100-1 chance (I’d be selected again),” the 29-year-old striker said on Tuesday. ”It proves it wasn’t such a bad choice.”
Benzema’s absence has given Gignac an unexpected chance.
”We’re up against two big footballing nations so our performances will be scrutinized,” he said. ”If I do well it will help me score points.”
The Benzema affair is the least of his concerns.
”I have my own situation to think about,” he said. ”I’ve traveled 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) to think about sporting matters, not anything else.”